Steve Coleman had a message for the people who had gathered at Piedmont Technical College’s Medford Event Center: Don’t be fooled by what you see on TV.

For every young black man with a gun, there are 300 without one, Coleman said May 25 at the fourth annual MODELS Academy Gala.

“There’s a lot of good in our community,” he said. “And there’s a hell of a lot of good in our young men.”

That sentiment underpins MODELS Academy, a mentoring program housed within Piedmont Technical College and led by Coleman, the school’s director of Genesis Initiatives. The Academy’s mission, according to its webpage, is to “inspire, educate, inform, motivate, train and prepare black males, grooming them into exceptional individuals, role models and leaders.”

The program now has more than 100 students and serves Greenwood, Abbeville, McCormick and Newberry counties. 

There are all sorts of programs for adolescents who get into trouble or who are struggling in the classroom, but few for those who are already doing well to make sure they stay on track, said Eva Higgins. Her son, Marcus Holloway, was one of five honored at the gala for graduating from high school and MODELS Academy.

“Our community is under siege. It is,” Coleman said at the gala. “And we can make every excuse possible about what law enforcement might be doing or not doing, or what the fire department might be doing or not doing, or what some city or county admin might be doing or not doing. But I firmly believe that if there are enough of us like us who are sitting in this room for the reason that we’re sitting here, if we just teach one, reach one, we can make a difference in the lives of our young men.”

Jayden Calhoun also graduated this spring. He will attend Winthrop University in the fall, where he will study marketing, and he credits the Academy with opening his eyes to the grandeur of black history and the meaning of manhood and leadership.

Calhoun described MODELS Academy’s approach as a deep-dive into African American history. He was assigned books about African American leaders, including Sojourner Truth, Benjamin Mays, Thurgood Marshall and Barack Obama, and learned things that had never been touched on in his social studies or history classes at school.

He has since come to understand a leader as someone who takes initiative.

“Looking at something and just doing it, and not waiting for anybody else to do it,” Calhoun said when asked to define leadership. “And knowing it’s about service, it’s not for gain, it’s just something you need to do.”

Chris Thomas, a co-director of MODELS Academy and director of the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historic Preservation Site, said the history lessons are meant to show his students that African Americans and their descendants have also made major contributions to the arts and sciences, and to give them heroes after which they could model themselves.  

“We’re just trying to do our due diligence, teach them and educate them, and give them that positive input,” said Courtney Smith, a police officer and co-director at MODELS Academy. “They’re not perfect, none of us are, but this is a good group of guys.”

Indeed, after Holloway got into some trouble earlier in the year, Coleman sat down with him to tell him it wasn’t the end of the world.

“Marcus is still going to be successful, he’s still going to do well,” Higgins recalled Coleman saying. “People that love you don’t give up on you.”

Holloway will attend Piedmont Tech in the fall and has considered careers in physical therapy and electronic engineering.

“The one that’s shooting gets all the attention because it’s sensational,” Coleman said. “Success is quiet. It builds over a period of time. And then the next thing you know, you got a doctor or a lawyer.”

Contact staff writer Aleks Gilbert at 864-943-5644.